How illegal is it to cite books that were illegally downloaded?

If they aren't available in the university library, if you can't really afford the books (maybe you will make one reference in one article and the book costs $250+), if there isn't anything else you can use (published articles, reports, etc)... it's one more citation for the author. So in fact you might be helping the authors academic career (here I am considering only academic authors).

I do try my best to find other articles that I might be able to use in my work, but sometimes there is nothing else written, or not enough time to do the extra search.

What do you do?

ps1: I do buy books that are important to my research.

ps2: I do download books that can be important to my research.

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    There is no requirement of owning a book for citing it. You could have taken a peek at it on a colleague's desk. Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 14:30
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    There are two different issues. A "book" has an existence independent of any particular copy, for purposes of citation. The ethics of citing-as-in-depending-upon something one hasn't seen are something else: unwise and somewhat dishonest. Yet one should also not lie-by-omission by not citing-as-in-acknowledging-existence, as that would also be somewhat dishonest, etc. Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 15:00
  • I guess we can imagine some really far-fetched scenario. When they put you on trial for copyright violation, that citation may be used as evidence...
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 14:36

3 Answers 3


The illegal act of course is the download, never the citation. @Federico Poloni answered that correctly.


If they aren't available in the university library, if you can't really afford the books

besides the possibilities @StasK mentioned:

  • In many countries there exist inter-library catalogues (e.g. GVK) that tell you which libraries have the book you're looking for. Once you know that (or your local librarian found out for you), you can ask your local librarian to either get the whole book via inter-library loan, or
  • to order a partial copy (e.g. the chapter or the exact pages you need).
  • There are also commercial document delivery services (see for an example: Subito). Which offer tracking down documents and again either loan of the book or partial copies.
    Even the linked commercial service charges only 9 € per book inside Germany for non-commercial customers and 25 € worldwide for commercial customers but excluding UK and USA (I don't know why).
  • If you're talking about a thesis: university libraries usually have a copy at least of all PhD theses done at that university, for Bachelor or Master theses you'd often have to ask the institute (or supervisor) where the work was done.
  • In Germany, the national library has a copy of each book published in Germany or in German (or about Germany) from 1913 on. There are also field-specific large libraries, as for example the TIB Hannover for technical literature.

So, are you sure "can't really afford" is a valid argument?

(Whether you nevertheless download pirate copies, or ask your neighbour to let you have a look into her book, or buy it despite the fact that the neigbour at the other desk owns it as well, stays entirely your own choice.)

If I have to get a book by inter-library loan, I try to make a copy of the vital chapter. This is legal here in Germany (single copies for personal use, reseach or teaching of not too large part of a book).

  • 3
    Check your local copyright law. You may have a right to copy works for research purposes if the licensor is unwilling to supply at a reasonable price in a reasonable time; etc. Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 21:38
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    @SamuelRussell: that's another good point. Here (Germany) however that applies only to books that are out of print for while. So books you can buy do not fall under this copyright exemption. Rules for this are changing right now, however. Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 8:04

You can cite a reference even if you have not read it, although that of course is a poor practice.

For books in English, you can often get a reasonably good idea about what a book covers by looking at Google books or previews on Amazon. That may not get you as far as you would have liked, but it is better than nothing.

I thought research was an altruistic attempt to expand the humankind's knowledge; have I been wrong all these years???

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    on the other hand, should you do a citation based on the scarce info you get from google books and amazon?
    – Gago-Silva
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 14:35
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    It depends on how obscure your topic is. Sometimes, you just KNOW that's the only book that covered it, and it was published in 1980s somewhere in Belgium in 200 copies as somebody's dissertation, and there are probably less than 30 copies of it remaining in all the libraries in the world. Still it has the original ideas that you have to acknowledge, as everybody else in the field does.
    – StasK
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 14:38
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    @StasK No!!! Never cite something you have not seen. If the original is necessary and unavailable, you need to cite the secondary source that made you aware that the original is necessary.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 14:44
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    It seems that there are different senses of "cite". I would mean "list in bibliography", as in "acknowledge existence of", even if I've never seen the thing. This reminds me of some serious people I've heard say that they deliberately didn't cast their eyes on competitors' work, so they'd not be obliged to cite them. Yes, cite the secondary source, too, I'd think. Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 14:58
  • @paulgarrett, what I meant was listing/acknowledging existence. Of course you cannot cite long paragraphs from the sources you've never seen. Not reading competitors work sounds like dirty tricks to me, certainly below the moral obligations for the best quality research. If the competitor asks them at a conference, "Have you seen my PNAS 2010 paper on this?", and they say, "No, I haven't yet", this won't sound terribly convincing to the audience.
    – StasK
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 17:44

Citing a book that you downloaded in violation of copyright law is not illegal. Citation does not qualify as copyright violation because it is not one of the exclusive rights of the copyright holder (e.g., it does not involve modification, distribution, public performance, the creation of derivative work, etc). I am not aware of any context in which simply citing a work would violate a law.

Although there are strong academic norms about citation, these are generally not codified as laws. For example, citing a book you have not read is considered bad form but you would not be breaking any laws if you did it.

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